Catching thieves red-handed

You can set up a comprehensive security system throughout your house for very little money with the help of your PC and one or more Web cams.

By DAVID SHAMAH
November 15, 2005 08:21
4 minute read.
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webcam88. (photo credit: )

 
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I don't want to scare anybody, but you have to be careful out there - and inside as well. Most of us hate to think about it, but crime is a fact of everyday life. And crime is up; not too long ago, many of us lived in neighborhoods where you didn't have to lock the door (I know that sounds strange to new immigrants, but just ask veteran Israelis). Unfortunately, those days are probably gone forever. These days, we all seek ways to protect our homes and families. Some people - in fact, a lot of people - go for "burglar bars" (soragim). But bars ruin your view and are far from burglarproof. The alternative, of course, is a burger alarm. But both alarms and bars can be very expensive. Hence this column. You can set up a comprehensive security system throughout your house for very little money with the help of your PC and one or more Web cams. Although they don't make noise or keep out bad guys, Webcams can be used to set up a surveillance system, and with signs displayed in a prominent place, they may be just as effective a deterrent as the "big-boy" systems. Don't think they work? Well, a Web cam surveillance system caught a thief red-handed earlier this year (http://www.engadget.com/entry/1234000480032155/). If computer equipment could be compared to neighborhoods in a big city, Web cams would be in the red-light district; that's the reputation they have. And where there's smoke, there's fire - we mostly hear about Web cams being used for the kind of stuff we keep away from the kids. Add to that the usually jerky and low-quality pictures, and most people say "feh" when asked whether they have one. True, they're useful for setting up live video chats with friends and family, but with the proliferation of digital video and digital cameras that can take up to three minutes of video of much higher quality than you get with a cam, the popularity of those little orbs has waned dramatically - and the current low prices reflect that unpopularity. But forget their iffy reputation and iffy pictures. Web cams have other features that can win them a place of honor in your electronics stable. Most Web cams, for example, can take still photos, and software which we will describe can take a still photo when the camera detects movement, zip it into e-mail, and buzz your cell phone with an SMS alert. And if you invest in Wi-fi Web cams, the sky's the limit; you can build a full-service surveillance system to keep an eye on every corner of your house. Of course, you need a Web cam, or a bunch of Web cams, in order to get this done. There's a cam for every purse, but of course the more you spend, the more you get. Simple no-name cams cost as little as $10 these days, while "professional" cameras cost between $50 and $100. Many of the cams in that price range can do all sorts of tricks, like panning and turning, which make them far more effective for surveillance. Then there are wireless Web cams costing $200 and up. They of course have the advantage of "travelling" anywhere in the house, and usually have all the bells and whistles. But the guts of a Web cam surveillance system is the software, which can make the equipment go a long way. A plain vanilla Web cam costing NIS 50, for example, can be attached to the USB port of a computer and controlled with an application like the highly rated PC-Alarm and Security System (http://www.pc-alarm.com/downloads.htm). With this program, you can set your cam to automatically "perk up," take a picture and send a message if the microphone detects sound in the room. You may have to experiment a bit to make sure the camera can distinguish between the buzzing of the refrigerator and the sound of objects being stuffed into a sack. It will also automatically e-mail a picture when the Web cam's software detects someone within range of the camera. And the program will dial a phone number and play an alert that a picture was e-mailed if the computer is connected to a phone line. For $20, you get a pretty complete piece of surveillance software. Of course, there's always a cheaper way to do things, and you can get many of the same features in the freeware WebcamFirst (http://www.webcamfirst.com), which can also do motion detection, scheduled image capture, and uploading of pictures to a Web site via ftp, or copying over a network. It does not, however, send e-mail; for that, you have to get the shareware version. But you can use the freeware version and write a script with an e-mail utility like Blat (http://www.blat.net) - a command line e-mail program that integrates well with other applications. Both these programs support only a single Web cam on a USB port, but Jaxcam (http://www.jaxstream.com/products/jaxcam/main.htm) supports a nearly unlimited number of cams, which would be a great way to really keep an eye on things. All you need is a couple of USB splitters (such as the one at http://www.vpi.us/hubs.html) - preferably with their own source of power, and appropriately long USB cables to extend your cameras' coverage. Jaxcam (which costs $25) will also e-mail files and send an alert when it does, and will also alert you if someone gets too close to the host PC or plays with the keyboard. When you call and tell the cops that someone is robbing your house right now, they go into action and try to catch the bad guy on the spot - so thanks to your Web cam surveillance system, you may just get better service from the men in blue.

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